Pastoral Prayer for Hearing One’s Call, January 28

O Savior God we know you have called us to follow you, but sometimes that call is as hard to understand as finding our way on a dense foggy morning. Be our fog horn and a beacon to light our way. As our nation struggles with issues of security versus compassion give our nation’s leaders wisdom to make good decisions that are fair to all.

O God of grace we come to call upon you again today because you have first called us. You have called us to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with you. When we look at all the injustice in our world today and when we honestly confess our failure to love others and ourselves the way you love us, we fall on our knees in humility and shame.

Please forgive us for the times we have rushed by someone in need because we were too busy or too uncomfortable to stop and help. In this time of prayer give us ears to hear both the challenge and the comfort of the Gospel. Whisper words of comfort and mercy to soothe our guilt, words of wisdom to light the narrow road less taken, and words of courage to banish our doubts.

All of us have needs for personal healing of our bodies and minds and to mend relationships that are strained or broken by the challenges of daily living. When we add to our prayer concerns the needs of our friends and family and those of our community and world the weight of those concerns can overwhelm us. That’s when it’s hard for us to hear your call to minister to the lost and least, to love our neighbors and even our enemies as ourselves. That’s really hard, Lord.

And so we pray that your holy spirit will descend on every one of us today. You know our needs even before we ask, and we are often too busy or feel too insignificant to ask. We cannot fathom the wideness of your grace and mercy. That’s why we worship and pray and study your word to be reminded again and again that nothing is impossible with you.

We lift up to you Lord those named and unnamed today, for victims of abuse and violence, for our nation’s leaders, for those suffering from floods, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. Hear our prayers O God and let us hear clearly what you are calling us to do in response to improve the lives of those in our corner of the world. Grant us wisdom, grant us courage for the living of these days so that when you call us we can answer, here I am Lord, send me.

We pray in the name of the one who answered the most important call of all – the one that led him to the cross of salvation. Let us join our hearts and voices in the prayer he taught his followers to pray.

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Like a Woman

Bertha Hemmert was my surrogate grandma when I was growing up on Murray Street in Wapakoneta, Ohio. Not that I needed another grandma—I had two very loving ones already; but a little kid can never get too much of that special love that grandmas are so good at. And Mrs. Hemmert as I knew her then had one big advantage over my “real” grandmothers—she was just across the alley no more than 50 feet from our back door. She was probably younger than I am now, but to my 7 year-old self she seemed ancient. I don’t remember how she first befriended me. It was likely one of the many times I hit a stray baseball into her yard and had to go fetch it.

Two things I remember very well—I enjoyed hanging out at her house and “helping” her with chores like cleaning green beans from her garden. I’m sure I was often more trouble than help but I always felt welcome to drop in whenever I wanted. The other thing I remember – because my family has never let me forget it – is that one day while helping Mrs. Hemmert in the kitchen I announced to her that “I think I want to be a woman when I grow up.”
No, that was not some confusion over my sexual identity. As I reflect back on that memory and my childhood I have come to believe it meant I just felt loved being in her company and wanted to enjoy that feeling as much as I could. And it was not just Mrs. Hemmert who represented that unconditional love and acceptance for me. The most important people in my early life who gave me that kind of affirmation were all women—my grandmothers, my mom and my Aunt Ruth.

My reflection on those childhood relationships have been inspired by all of the events in our society in the past year that have raised awareness of female power and courage in spite of oppression and abuse–and by the guilt and remorse I feel that in spite of my life-long appreciation for women I have been part of the male dominated power structure that I could not be insulated from growing up in the 1950’s. Mrs. H. was typical of all of my female role models as I grew up. They were all stay-at-home mothers and homemakers, and they lived out that vocation proudly and well.

Proverbs 31 and has been used and misused to praise and eulogize many women like those. It says in part “A capable wife who can find? She is far more precious than jewels. The heart of her husband trusts in her, and he will have no lack of gain. She does him good, and not harm, all the days of her life. She seeks wool and flax, and works with willing hands. She is like the ships of the merchant, she brings her food from far away. She rises while it is still night and provides food for her household and tasks for her servant-girls. (Proverbs 31:10-15 NRSV) Of course the women in my life were the “servant-girls” for their families rather than having any, but that proverb is attributed to King Lemuel’s mother giving her son advice; and he could relate to that particular reference.

The misuse part of that Proverb has been on the hard-working from before dawn to after dark woman who is subservient to her husband. But listen to what other parts of that proverb say about women of strength as entrepreneurs and teachers of wisdom: “She considers a field and buys it; with the fruit of her hands she plants a vineyard. She girds herself with strength, and makes her arms strong. She perceives that her merchandise is profitable. Her lamp does not go out at night. She puts her hands to the distaff, and her hands hold the spindle. She makes linen garments and sells them; she supplies the merchant with sashes. Strength and dignity are her clothing, and she laughs at the time to come. She opens her mouth with wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue. She looks well to the ways of her household, and does not eat the bread of idleness. Her children rise up and call her happy; her husband too, and he praises her: “Many women have done excellently, but you surpass them all.” (Vss.16-19, 24-29)

That part of this proverb reminds us that to limit women, or anyone, to a particular role or station in life is not only foolish but absolutely wrong. To respect or pay women less for the same work men do is unjust. To treat women as sex-objects in blatant, abusive or even subtle or unintended ways is wrong and must stop.
I was proud of Mrs. Hemmert and wanted to be like her – because “the teaching of kindness was on her tongue” and she treated me as someone of value and worth. Women today are demanding the same kind of respect and dignity and unconditional love that the wonderful women in my life gave me. Did they raise a perfect son or grandson or nephew? Of course not. There we too many sexist forces in my life in the way I was taught what it meant to be a man; in the ways all of the heroes of American history were portrayed as powerful white men; in the male-dominated leadership of the churches I was nurtured in; in the movies and television shows I watched; in the literature I read; and the list goes on and on.

But this I know, the seeds of love and compassion were sown in my heart and soul by people like Mrs. Hemmert. I have often been embarrassed when my family tells that story about my wanting to be a woman; but today I am proud to proclaim that I am still striving to be like her; to offer everyone the kind of affirmation and hospitality she gave to me. I want to be like the women who have had the courage to speak their truth to power in the past few months. I want to be like the men that Oprah included in her great speech at last night’s Golden Globes when she said:
“So I want all the girls watching here, now, to know that a new day is on the horizon! And when that new day finally dawns, it will be because of a lot of magnificent women, many of whom are right here in this room tonight, and some pretty phenomenal men, fighting hard to make sure that they become the leaders who take us to the time when nobody ever has to say ‘Me too’ again.”

Pastoral Prayer for 3rd Sunday in Advent

God of Mercy and Grace, again we pause to make ourselves aware of your presence. We know you are with us everywhere but in the rush and busyness of this season it’s easy to forget that and even to forget what Christmas is all about. Help us to center our hearts and souls just now that through Scripture and the blessed gift of music we will hear again and feel again the night and day of your eternal love. Bless these musicians as they proclaim the Good News, and give us open hearts to listen and believe.

Help us suspend our cynicism and doubt like Joseph did. Send your spirit to assure us that when life seems too much to bear, when we see no way out of impossible circumstances, if we seek your guidance you will show us the way, truth and life revealed so long ago in Christ Jesus. As we often sing, Love came down at Christmas, but that was just the ultimate expression of your presence that was with Sarah and Abraham, Ruth and Naomi, Jonah and Isaiah and all of your children in every generation since creation began.

And the sharing of your love didn’t stop at Bethlehem either – just as your spirit came to Mary and Joseph before the birth so it continued to protect the holy family from Herod’s evil way. The love that came down at Christmas was nurtured by Joseph and Mary; it was shared and proclaimed by Paul and the apostles and Christian martyrs and missionaries across the centuries in every corner of the world.

That Love still inspires kindness and mercy today, even in the midst of violence and unrest in the streets of Columbus or Jerusalem. It inspires sacrificial love as we share our blessings with those less fortunate and in those who will be traveling to Mexico 11 days from now to share the universal message of love that transcends all language and cultural barriers. We ask your blessing on those 12 messengers of Christ’s love that we have named today. Fill each of them to overflowing with the love of Christ and guide them safely on this mission of mercy.
In these final days of Advent, O Lord, we pray for the lonely, the sick, the discouraged and hopeless. We pray for generous hearts that our preparation for this holy birth will truly reflect the awe and mystery that is there every day for those who are humble enough to trust that with you all things are possible. We ask these things in Jesus’ name, as we pray the prayer he taught us to pray.

Longing to Belong – A Prodigal Prequel, Genesis 32:3-8, 22-31

[Sermon preached at Northwest UMC, October 8, 2017]

Do you remember what it was like to be at summer camp or some other foreign place and be so miserably homesick that you thought you would die? I certainly do. The gospel song that says, “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child” describes that horrible feeling for me. But homesickness is not just a childhood disease. Adolescence, mid-life crises, old age are all recurring outbreaks of homesickness—of feeling broken and alone in a strange world where we wonder what we’re doing here? This week after another horrific massacre of innocent people in Las Vegas I’m very homesick for a world with less violence and hate.

Some homesickness is quite normal. As teens or young adults we are the ones who think we want freedom and our own space. We are the ones who get embarrassed when our parents want to hug and kiss us in public because we’re much too grown up for that kid stuff. And that’s OK. It’s all part of growing up. And we’re the ones who think God’s rules for living are too confining, too old-fashioned, and certainly our parents are. We can do much better on our own. And that’s OK too. So we go out on our own and we blow it, not once, but several times, and that’s also OK because we learn from those experiences. But what isn’t OK is when we are too proud to admit that we were wrong or that we really do need help.

It’s hard to admit we’re wrong. People just love to say, “I told you so,” don’t they? So we don’t even try to be reconciled with family or friends or even with God because we’re afraid we’ll be rejected or ridiculed. That’s where our friend Jacob finds himself in our Scripture for today. What we have in Chapter 32 is just a snippet of the story of Jacob that takes up half of the book of Genesis. It’s a fascinating saga so full of deception, incest, polygamy, fake murders and kidnapping that it could be mistaken for a modern day soap opera. I’d recommend taking the time to read or re-read the whole story because we can only deal with one brief but very dramatic episode today. The bad blood between Jacob and his twin brother Esau that is the impetus for what we read today begins back in Genesis 25 when Jacob, still in utero, grabs the heel of Esau and tries to pull him back into the womb so he, Jacob, could claim the prize of being Isaac’s first born.

As a young adult Jacob, true to form, tricks his near-sighted old father into giving him the blessing that by custom belonged to the eldest son Esau. And because of his underhanded tactics Jacob has to flee from his angry brother to the land of Haran where he lives and prospers with his Uncle Laban. The details of how Jacob and Laban take turns deceiving each other and have a falling out many years later is fascinating – but that will have to be a teaser for another sermon. Except to say that it sets the stage for why we find Jacob in our text today heading back to Canaan to finally face the brother he cheated.

Anyone here have any conflicts in your family? Sure we do, we all do so much that there are times when I think the term “dysfunctional family” is redundant. Conflict in human relationships is inevitable unless we choose to keep our relationships superficial. Some of us are like comedian Ron White who says, “I had the right to remain silent, I just didn’t have the ability.” And introverts like me are often so quiet nobody knows what we’re thinking. Neither extreme is satisfying because both leave us feeling inauthentic and homesick.

We live in a time of terrible isolation and loneliness. We live in houses or apartments in close proximity to other people but don’t really know our neighbors. The Las Vegas shooter was so much a loner that none of his neighbors or his own brother really knew him, maybe not even the woman he lived with. And tellingly his brother said they never really knew their father either. We may never know the reason he killed and maimed so many innocent people, and it’s even less likely that we will ever know the depth of the loneliness or homesickness that drove him to do the unspeakable.

None of that is to make any excuses for mass murder, but it is a call for all of us to come clean about our own homesickness. Where in our lives have we alienated ourselves from others? Where have we failed to love our neighbors because we simply don’t know them? What guilt or disagreement has driven us to move away from family or friends, or to withdraw within ourselves? I heard a great quote from James Baldwin this week on NPR. He said, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

Jacob was homesick. In his message to Esau he says, “I have lived with Laban as an alien.” He is heading home and dreading the inevitable confrontation with the brother he has wronged. Jacob is imagining the worst – that he will get his just desserts; and so he does everything he can think of to appease his brother. He sends Esau enough gifts to rival the Publisher’s Clearinghouse Sweepstakes. In one section of Chapter 32 that we skipped today for brevity there is an inventory of all the livestock Jacob sends ahead to Esau with his messengers, and the list totals 530 head of livestock. Jacob also bows and scrapes by addressing Esau repeatedly as “my lord” while referring to himself as Esau’s servant. To his credit Jacob is very transparent about what he’s doing. He concludes his message to Esau by saying that he has sent these gifts “in order that I may find favor in your sight.” The only thing missing is an actual apology for cheating his brother out of his birthright, but that may be expecting too much.

Jacob’s messengers return from their mission to report that Esau is coming to meet him. That sounds promising, but then the messengers add the kicker – he’s got 400 men with him. That’s like challenging your big brother to a game of basketball and being told he’s bringing LeBron James and the Cavs with him!

“Then Jacob was greatly afraid and distressed,” verse 7 tells us, and he devises a clever plan to save his hide, even if it means putting others, including his wives and kids at risk. He divides his large company into two groups, thinking that if one group is destroyed by Esau and his army the others will be able to escape.
Finally as a last resort Jacob does what he should have done first – he prays. Anyone else ever forget to pray until things get tough or is that just me? We didn’t read this part either but in his prayer Jacob does two things. As we would expect he prays for God to deliver him, but before that he does something even more important that we can all learn from. Listen to what he says in verses 9-10: “O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, O Lord who said to me, ‘Return to your country and to your kindred, and I will do you good,’ 10 I am not worthy of the least of all the steadfast love and all the faithfulness that you have shown to your servant, for with only my staff I crossed this Jordan; and now I have become two companies.”

Jacob acknowledges all that God has done for him and his ancestors in uncharacteristic humility, but then he reminds God of the promises God made to him that convinced him to come back home and face the music. Why would he need to do that? Surely God doesn’t forget his promises! No, Jacob is reminding himself who he belongs to, he’s claiming his blessing from God, and we’ll see how he does that again in much more dramatic fashion in the best-known part of this text.

After Jacob prays and sends his family across the river we are told “Jacob was left alone.” He is really alone. Jacob is like you and me. We try to cure our homesickness with a host of home remedies—large doses of education, exercise—be it running marathons or climbing corporate ladders, accumulating social media friends who fill our time and the lack of peace we feel. Power, money, prestige, new cars, new clothes, new houses, new jobs, new spouses, booze, beauty treatments, Grecian Formula. We try it all don’t we? But when we let our defenses down and find ourselves alone with nothing to do—remember those were the times the homesickness got you at camp too? When we’re not too busy to think and feel, then the old feeling sneaks up on us and we start feeling like that motherless child again.

“Jacob is alone” Genesis says, “and a man wrestled with him until daybreak.” But this is no ordinary man and the wrestling match is not the WWF! These two combatants struggle all night long and the match is still a draw as morning approaches, although Jacob’s hip will never be the same. And the man says, “let me go, for the day is breaking.” That’s our first clue that this is no ordinary man. This is God and they both know that if any mortal sees the face of God he or she will die. God is protecting Jacob even as they struggle by warning him not to see God’s face. But Jacob refuses to let go unless God blesses him. Jacob realizes that God’s blessing is more important than life itself, and after God gives Jacob a new name “Israel” because he has striven with God and prevailed God blesses Jacob and the struggle is over as abruptly as it began.

It is after wrestling with God and only then that Jacob is ready to meet his brother. Like another prodigal son that Jesus talked about, it is an encounter with God that gives us courage to confess and face our human struggles. Jacob had to wrestle all night long, and sometimes those dark nights can last for weeks or years, but if we can hang on to God above all else, morning will come and with it the courage to carry on.

I slept in last Monday and as I got up I remember thinking that I had missed my usual breakfast with the CBS Morning News team. Unfortunately the news of the massacre in Las Vegas lasted all day. The cumulative effect of bad news stories recently, each one worse than the last, knocked me into a funk that lasted several days. I’d probably still be there if I didn’t have this sermon to prepare. Sermons are a constant reminder to preachers that no matter how we are feeling, Sunday’s coming!

That’s important for all of us, not just preachers. We Christians worship on Sunday because that’s the day of Christ’s resurrection; and that is our reminder that no matter how bad the news is or how dark the skies are – Sunday’s coming. I gladly borrow that phrase from the great preacher Tony Campolo who made it famous in a Good Friday sermon entitled “It’s Friday, but Sunday’s Coming!”

When personal or national tragedies threaten to blow us away we can be like Lt. Dan in the movie “Forrest Gump.” Lt. Dan got his legs blown off in Viet Nam and was angry at Forrest for saving his life. But a few years later he is reunited with Forrest and helps him run the Bubba Gump Shrimp Company. In one great scene Dan and Forrest are out on their shrimp boat during Hurricane Carmen. Double amputee Lt. Dan climbs the mast of the ship as the waves are crashing onto the deck below and he shouts at God, “Is that all you’ve got? You call that a storm?” This foul-mouthed atheist has learned in the school of hard knocks that life goes on if we just hang on till morning comes. Psalm 30 puts it this way: “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.”

Anyone here have trouble handling big changes in life? That’s homesickness. Because change, even positive change, is hard, and much of the division in our nation today is because change is coming at us at warp speed. We are so homesick for a simpler day that we resent those who represent change – immigrants, people of different races or faiths or political opinions. And on top of that this baby boomer is homesick for the things my aging body just won’t do anymore. We seniors are eager for younger folks to take over leadership of businesses and families and churches, but darn it the younger generation doesn’t always do it the way we’ve done it for years.

Being an itinerant United Methodist pastor has comes with built in homesickness. Like people in many professions and businesses we move a lot, and that makes it hard to know where home really is. I grew up in the small town of Wapakoneta in northwest Ohio. Wapak is where I’m from but I rarely go back there. My parents moved away from there while I was in college, and I moved away intellectually as I accumulated multiple degrees in higher education. I still have several aunts and uncles back there in Auglaize County, but I’m ashamed to admit I’ve been on a 50 year ego trip that has kept me away from that extended family. None of them went to college and as my theology and worldview changed over the years I felt like we just didn’t have anything in common. I don’t want to argue about religion or politics with them, and quite frankly I felt superior.

Over Labor Day weekend this year I went back home with my two sisters. I must give my sisters credit for initiating the trip. It was my one sister’s 50th high school reunion, and while we were there they suggested we visit our three uncles who live there.

It was a marvelous experience with all three of them but the priceless moment came when we visited the one we call Uncle Frog in the hospital. He’s just 15 years older than I; so when I was a kid he was a big strong athletic guy that I adored. He took time to play catch with me and made me feel like I mattered. Now he’s 86 and has a very bad heart. He knows he doesn’t have long to live. He called me over to his hospital bed and got very emotional as he tried to ask me something, but the words wouldn’t come. I knew he wanted me to conduct his funeral when the time comes because we had talked about that after another uncle’s funeral 10 years ago when Frog was still in good health. As I held his hand and assured him I’d be there for him I realized I was home.

We can go home again if we’re willing to struggle and cling on to God’s blessing which is always wherever we are on life’s journey. Beyond the beliefs and ideologies that divide us is a deeper human bond we all share. It’s love that bridges those divisions but we have to cross that bridge to get home.

There was a movie many years ago called “The Poseidon Adventure” about a group of people who were trapped in a ship that got turned upside down in a storm. Isn’t that how life feels sometimes? Like everything is upside down and we can’t find our way home. The theme song from that movie captures the truth that Jacob learned wrestling with God. The song says, “There’s got to be a morning after if we can hold on through the night.” Whatever darkness or struggle you are facing – just hang on to God till morning comes.

Jacob refuses to let go till God blesses him, and in the strength of that blessing he immediately goes to meet his brother. What happens then is summed up in this description from Genesis 33: “He himself went on ahead of them, bowing himself to the ground seven times, until he came near his brother. But Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept.” The prodigal was limping, but he was home.
Amen

“Set in Stone: Rock Solid,” Matthew 16:13-20

One of the curiosities in my family is that previous generations had a real thing for nicknames. My paternal grandmother’s name was Vesta Verola and that’s no April fool! If anyone ever needed a nickname she did, and hers was Dottie. My maternal grandfather was Alma Webster, and he too qualified; but I’m not sure that his nickname, Hooker, was any better than Alma! Maybe his unusual names explain why 4 of his sons all went by different handles than their given Christian names. My uncle Carl was Bud, Forest became Frog, John Franklin always went by Hank, and the youngest Gary was Butch. Why Uncle Bill was always just Bill I do not know.

I bring that up not to confirm that I come by my weirdness honestly, but because in our Scripture for this morning Matthew tells us how Jesus’ disciple Simon got his nickname. Jesus says, “Simon, son of Jonah….. You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.” The Aramaic word Cephas that we translate as ‘Peter’ is very similar to the word for ‘rock;’ so saying Peter is the rock on which the church will be founded is a clever play on words that is lost in the English translation. At least one commentator suggests that it would be better if we just called Simon “Rock” instead of “Peter” so we remember this life-changing moment in Simon Peter’s life.

It’s like the Hebrew Scriptures telling us that when Abram and Sarai accepted God’s covenant to be the parents of God’s chosen people they were given new names, Abraham and Sarah. Or when Jacob became Israel, which means something like “one who has wrestled with God.” These change of names mark critical turning points, just like marriage when one or both partners takes a new name to signify a sacred transition after which we are never the same.

Jesus didn’t ask Simon if he wanted to be the Rock, he just says, “Simon, you are the Rock,” and that’s the end of discussion. But why did Jesus pick Simon to be the Rock? I’m glad you asked since that is what I want to talk about today! Simon was always a larger than life character, an extrovert, always ready with an answer to any question, even if it was wrong. He was like the kid in class who no matter what the teacher asked, she always was waving her hand in the air the highest to say, “Pick me, teacher. I know! I know!” Simon was the only one of the disciples brave enough to get out of the boat and try to walk on water to Jesus, until he sank like a rock! Maybe that’s where Jesus got the idea? Simon was chosen first when Jesus was picking his disciples; so maybe he had seniority. He was certainly one of the inner circle, along with James and John, who were with Jesus at the most critical moments of his ministry.

At any rate I’m pretty sure Simon the Rock was flattered to be chosen. I can see a bumper sticker on Simon’s parents’ camel that said, “Our son is an honor student chosen to be The Rock.” Simon is the one when Jesus asks, “Who do you say that I am?” who correctly identifies Jesus as “the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” Jesus’ could have just given him a gold star or a pat on the head. After all God had given the answer to that question at Jesus’ baptism and several of the disciples had already proclaimed that Jesus was the Messiah back in chapter 14. But Jesus asks again here because this is final exam time. Jesus knows the jig is about up. He’s very soon heading to Jerusalem for the last time and he wants to know if his motley crew of disciples is ready to take over when he’s gone. So he asks for assurance that they get it. And Simon offers the correct answer and he’s the chosen keeper of the keys to the Kingdom.

But when we look closely at Simon’s full resume we have to scratch our heads a bit at this choice for rockhood. And we don’t have to go far. In the very next paragraph after the words we read this morning we begin to see that Simon the Rock may not be as rock solid as we’d hope. He and the others know who Jesus is, but they still don’t’ really know. Verse 21, the very next verse after our text for today says, “From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, ‘God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.’ But he turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling-block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’”

You think Jesus is having a little buyers’ remorse? His chosen rock is suddenly called a “stumbling-block” because his mind is set on human things – like staying alive—and not on doing God’s will no matter what. And we know this is just a preview of bigger failures to come. But this lack of faith immediately after he gets his new name is enough to make us wonder, Why Simon? Were there no other candidates? Was he the least of 12 evils?
Before we come down too hard on Peter, let’s remember last week’s sermon. I was impressed that Mebane was willing to preach to a whole congregation armed with stones, but then I guess she was pretty confident that no one without sin was going to cast the first stone. The point is we are all fallible human beings. There’s no other choice for Jesus to pick rock solid disciples except from the likes of us!!!!

Remember none of the 12 disciples had impressive resumes. The Gospels don’t tell us how or why Jesus picked the group he did. In most cases we are just told he saw them, fishermen, tax collector, and a bunch who are not identified by profession, and, perhaps here’s the key, these are the ones were immediately are willing to leave their nets, their parents, their tax office and follow Jesus.

Anybody play follow the leader as a kid? What’s the only thing you have to know to play that game – to follow the leader, right? And your position to do so is behind the leader. I used to think that when Jesus told Simon the Rock to “get behind me, Satan,” that it was like being told to go stand in the corner. But I’ve come to realize that Jesus was just telling Peter that in order to follow he had to get behind Jesus, both literally and figuratively. He needed the disciples to have his back because they were going into very dangerous territory. And right up to the bitter end they all swore they were able to follow him anywhere, until they didn’t.
They were plain ordinary folks without degrees or pedigrees, just like you and me, and that’s exactly why they were chosen to be the foundation of the church. Someone once asked Jesus why he ate with sinners, and the answer is that if he didn’t he would always be eating alone.

This story is not just about Simon the Rock. It’s about you and me. If we claim to believe in Christ as the Messiah, the son of the living God, then we are signing up to be the rocks on which Christ’s church is built.
But let’s remember than even the strongest rocks can erode. That big gaping hole in the ground we call the Grand Canyon was carved out of solid rock over centuries by something as soft as the water of the Colorado River.
Church rocks can be worn down by the constant forces of evil that invent new and improved ways to entice us all the time. Like the mortar between rocks our faith needs to be rebuilt in each generation so we can do church in ways that are relevant to current cultural situations.

That takes a team effort. There is a plaque on a large boulder along the 13th fairway at the TPC Scottsdale golf course that commemorates the day in 2011 when Tiger Woods hit a wayward tee shot that ended up right behind that large boulder. Commentators estimated the rock weighs close to a ton, and with his ball lying perhaps 3 feet from the rock there was no way even for Tiger to hit the ball over the rock. That would mean taking a one-stroke penalty for almost every golfer in the world.

But Tiger had two things going for him that most of us don’t. He knew the rules of golf very well.
Rule 6-7: “Stones of any size (not solidly embedded) are loose impediments and may be removed, provided removal does not unduly delay play.”

The rules official determined that the big rock was not “solidly embedded” in the Arizona desert and could therefore be moved legally. But remember the boulder weighed 2000 pounds. Enter ruling #23-1/3: “Spectators, caddies, fellow-competitors, etc., may assist a player in removing a large loose impediment.”
Now many serious golfers might have known about those rules, but very few of us have a large and strong enough group of friends to move a 2000 lb. impediment! Tiger of course always has a large gallery following him around the course, and several fans volunteered to help.

That may seem like a trivial example to non-golfers, but the point is that we all face big problems at times, and we need to know what all of our options are and not just surrender when something unexpected blocks our way. Secondly, none of us are equipped to figure out a solution to every problem, and that means being humble enough to ask for help. Tiger had a resource that I’m glad I don’t have on the golf course—a whole mob of people watching him, and with their help his obstacle was rolled away.

The church is like our gallery –our crowd of fans, people ready and willing to pray for us and help us when we have problems. But guess what? Being a mind reader is not required for church membership or ordination. To get help we have to be humble enough and brave enough to ask. That doesn’t mean every problem can be easily fixed or even quickly prayed away; but the love and support of other people and the assurance of God’s presence with us through dark days can help make any suffering a whole lot easier to bear.

But sometimes we think we’re too far gone or feel God’s too far away to help. And that’s when our troubles double. The temptation to withdraw from others when we need them most is a common human weakness. We don’t want to be a burden or inflict our pain on others, or we’re too embarrassed to admit we have a problem. Another Simon, as in Simon and Garfunkel, wrote a very sad song about that back in the 1960’s, and guess what? It just happens to be called “I Am a Rock.” The chorus to that song says, “I am a rock, I am an island; and a rock feels no pain, and an island never cries.”

That’s a pretty bleak picture of life, but we all feel that way sometimes when we just don’t want to risk being hurt again by letting anyone into our hearts. But that’s not really living is it? There’s an alternative to that lonely approach to life from a much older source. John Donne wrote 400 years ago: “No one is an island, Entire of itself, Every one is a piece of the continent, A part of the main….And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.”

We usually think of that bell tolling in funereal terms, but when we are in community together we also share the joyous bells of celebration. We are all part of the main, and the super glue that holds all of us together is the almighty power of God’s Holy Spirit.

We need each other because Jesus doesn’t promise his followers a rose garden. Following him leads to the Garden of Gethsemane and he’s not looking for fans but cross-taker-uppers. And God knows we will all stumble and fall just like old Rocky Simon Peter.

The church has not always been rock solid for Jesus and the temptation to follow an easier path has to be faced every day. The church in 2017 is not immune to the political divisions of the world. We Christians too often choose up sides to debate controversial issues and sometimes think winning a theological argument is more important than lining up to play follow the leader with Jesus.

That means simply to live like Christ even when that’s very hard. And it’s especially hard to do when personal problems and failures become boulders that seem too heavy to carry. When intimate relationships shatter, when jobs feel like prison sentences, or when there’s no job to be had. When school work seems impossible, or taking care of loved ones exhausting; when chronic illnesses rob us of our strength to carry on. When the world seems to be getting crueler and addictions seems the only way to escape—we all struggle and fail just like not so rock solid Simon.

So when all seems lost and hopeless, please know that you are not alone. All of us feel like our faith is anything but rock solid at times. Don’t be afraid to ask for help from God and from others. No matter how shaky our rocks feel, please hear Jesus’ assurance which he speaks to us just as he did to Peter “I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.” The victory of good over evil is guaranteed because it’s not our church; it’s not Simon the Rock’s church; it’s Christ’s Church.

Simon’s faith wasn’t always rock solid. Our faith is not always rock solid. But God’s promise is rock solid—solid enough to build a church on, to build your life on, and the gates of hell will never prevail against it.

Preached at Northwest UMC, Columbus, Ohio, April 2, 2017 as part of a Lenten series, “Set in Stone.”

Spiritual Cardiology


After I wrote my meditation on “A Wise Heart” earlier this week it very quickly became apparent that Psalm 90:12 isn’t finished with me. That verse says, “So teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart,” and the focus of my earlier post was on having a compassionate and caring heart. It occurred to me shortly after I posted that piece that the heart is also the seat of courage. While head knowledge is incomplete without heart knowledge, neither is adequate without courage.

The hymn “God of Grace and God of Glory” points that out when it says, “Grant us wisdom, grant us courage for the living of these days,” and the turbulent early weeks of 2017 certainly seem like the kinds of days the great preacher Harry Fosdick had in mind when he penned those words. In fact Fosdick wrote that hymn in 1930 just as the Great Depression was beginning and the Nazis were coming to power. I am praying the parallel ends there, but given the political instability and unrest here and around the world present days certainly qualify as those that require wise and brave hearts.

So if we really want wisdom and courage for facing trying hours and days, be they personal or corporate, maybe what we need for Lent is a heart transplant. A few years ago a good friend of mine was scheduled for open heart surgery. I had not been able to visit him in the hospital because I had a cold at the time and my germs were persona non grata. The night before the surgery my friend called me and we talked a few minutes. I don’t remember the content of the conversation, but he told me after the surgery that I was one of many calls he made that night. He understandably had trouble sleeping knowing surgeons were going to cut his chest open the next morning. He was nervous and felt a need to reach out and talk to people who were important in his life not knowing if it might be his last chance to do so.

It seems to me that the act of asking God to give me a new heart is also pretty risky business. My peers remind me often of the wisdom of Mae West who once said, “Aging is not for sissies.” Neither is following Jesus. We are in denial; at least I often am, when I tell myself that when Jesus said, “Take up your cross and follow me” he was just speaking metaphorically. Living faithfully as Jesus followers in a world gone crazy over materialism, militarism, fear-inspired violence, and self-centered hedonism is not for the faint of heart. To offer the prayer of Psalm 51 asking “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me” is a radical prayer and should not be uttered by rote or taken lightly. It’s asking for a spiritual heart transplant.

I always enjoy March Madness of the basketball variety, but this year it is an especially welcome diversion from the madness going on in the world. As I was browsing at our public library this week I came upon a timely and enjoyable audio book about three legendary basketball coaches who all coached in the Atlantic Coast Conference in the 1980’s. The book is appropriately entitled “The Legends” by John Feinstein and is about Dean Smith (UNC), Jimmy Valvano (NC State), and Mike Krzyzewski (Duke). One story early in the book struck me as an excellent example of a brave heart. Dean Smith was one of the greatest coaches in the history of college hoops, but long before he was a legend with a basketball arena named after him, when he was a young, unknown assistant coach at the University of North Carolina in the late 1950’s he put his job and career on the line off the court. He and his pastor took an African American divinity student with them into a segregated restaurant where his basketball team ate frequently and quietly broke down one small racial barrier. When John Feinstein heard about that incident when he was writing his book decades later he asked Coach Smith why he had never heard that story. Feinstein said, “You must have been very proud of doing that.” But Coach Smith said, “You should never be proud of doing the right thing. Just do the right thing.”

Brave and humble hearts don’t need to boast about acting justly, they just do it. Actions speak louder than words about the kind of heart one has. One of my favorite more recent hymns describes how a spiritual heart transplant works. I can’t sing “Here I Am” by Dan Schutte without feeling my heart and faith grow stronger. In one verse Schutte has God say, “I will break their hearts of stone, give them hearts for love alone.” The courage to live boldly and take the narrow unpopular road that leads to salvation and justice comes from hearts filled with so much love that there is no room for fear and doubt.

The journey from fear to faith is often like the one Dorothy and her friends take in “The Wizard of Oz.” Those four pilgrims on the yellow brick road are looking for a heart, for courage, for a brain and a way to go home. Isn’t that a great metaphor for the human condition? Aren’t’ those the things we all long for to live a full and satisfying life?

Dorothy, the tin man, the scarecrow and the lion think they are on an external journey to the promised land of Oz to find themselves. What they discover is that the faith journey is first an internal journey. The Wizard can’t give them what they are seeking, but the pilgrimage they take to the Emerald City provides them a much more transformative trip inward where they all discover that they already have courage, heart, and wisdom; and Dorothy’s red shoes are her ticket back to Kansas.

So the good news is that we don’t need to undergo an actual heart transplant to find our brave voices. Our factory equipment hearts provided by God are full of wisdom, love and courage. But like our physical hearts our spiritual cardio-vascular system can also get clogged up by fear and weakened by lack of use. But no matter how weak or spiritually dead we think we are, no matter how long or how often we have failed to walk the walk of courageous and compassionate faith, Lent is another opportunity to take the inward journey to rediscover the depths of wisdom and courage God provides for the living of this day and every day.

To pray to God for a wise and brave heart is a first step on the journey, like when we realize we need to see a health care provider and live a more heart-healthy lifestyle. And even if we feel spiritually dead with a heart of stone, God is always ready and willing to do CPR or jolt us back to life with a defibrillator. God has an impressive record of bringing people back from both spiritual and physical death.

God nurtured Elijah back to health and courage on Mt. Horeb; gave Jesus the strength he needed to carry on in the Garden of Gethsemane; and turned that bunch of cowering fishermen hiding in the upper room into a band of leaders who turned the world upside down. God gave Ruth the courage to stay with Naomi; helped the Samaritan woman at the well bare her soul to Jesus, and blessed Mary Magdalene with a whole new demon-free life. Brave hearts pray “Not my will but thy will be done. Brave hearts beat to the rhythm of Isaiah’s response to God’s call in the year that King Uzziah died (Isaiah 6) or Mary’s brave response to God’s most incredible request to bear his son. The brave peasant girl said: “I am the Lord’s servant. May your word to me be fulfilled.” (Luke 1:38).

And in Lent 2017 God still asks, “Whom shall I send?” and brave hearts sing (and mean it) the chorus to “Here I am Lord:”

“Here I am Lord! Is it I Lord? I have heard you calling in the night. I will go Lord, if you lead me. I will hold your people in my heart.”

Do we mean it? Do I mean it? Our actions and lives will show the world what kind of hearts we have.

When All is Lost, It’s Not!

HolyLent
“Turn, O LORD! How long?
Have compassion on your servants!
Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love,
so that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.” – Psalm 90:13-14

My Lenten encounter with Psalm 90 has taken a very humbling turn. Focusing on this Psalm during these first few days of Lent has shown me how very little I know about the Psalter, and that is not a good feeling. Maybe I “knew” more about the theology, structure and purpose of the Psalms in my seminary days, but I am embarrassed to admit how little this part of the Hebrew Scriptures has informed my own theological journey over the last four decades.

In particular Psalm 90 has reminded me that like the Pentateuch the book of Psalms is divided into five books. That may not sound terribly relevant to most casual readers of the Bible but it is. The divisions of the Psalms correspond to different historical contexts and the ensuing theological issues God’s people were facing at different points in the long relationship the Hebrew people had with their God. The fact that Psalm 90 is the opening chapter in Book IV of the Psalter is therefore significant as is the fact that it is the only Psalm attributed to Moses.

The plea for God to turn (repent) and have compassion on God’s servants in verses 13-14 is always relevant because we fallible humans are always in need of God’s forgiveness. But this plea is more than a generic mea culpa. Book IV of the Psalms addresses a huge theological crisis for the Hebrew people. When the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem and carried many of the Hebrews off into exile in 587 BCE the Hebrews lost what had been the three most important elements in the foundation of their faith for hundreds of years: their land, their monarchy and their temple. Book III ends with the plaintive lament asking why God has abandoned them. “How long, O Lord? Will you hide yourself forever? How long will your wrath burn like fire? Lord, where is your steadfast love of old, which by your faithfulness you swore to David?” (89: 46, 49)

It is in response to that desperate plea for compassion from God that Psalm 90 begins by imagining a response from Moses and a time before Israel had land, temple or monarchy, but only God to rely on. One ancient manuscript calls this Psalm “A prayer of Moses the prophet, when the people of Israel sinned in the desert.” That reference is to the golden calf affair in Exodus 32, one of the few other references in all of Scripture where God is asked to repent. In that case Moses begs God to repent of God’s anger toward his rebellious children when they melt down their jewelry to fashion an idol to worship because they can’t wait even 40 days for Moses to come back down from his summit meeting with God. God is so angry that he plans to destroy the people right there in the desert, but Moses convinces God to repent and to keep covenant with his children even though they have broken their promises yet again.

Now in exile the Psalmist is asking God to turn/repent of the judgment on Israel’s sin that has resulted in loss of land, temple and the supposed security of an earthly king. The prophets have tried in vain for decades to warn the people of Israel about placing their faith in the false gods of political power and materialism. Amos is perhaps the most direct and reflects the tenor of those warnings that went unheeded: “Thus says the Lord: For three transgressions of Judah, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment; because they have rejected the law of the Lord, and have not kept his statutes, but they have been led astray by the same lies after which their ancestors walked. So I will send a fire on Judah, and it shall devour the strongholds of Jerusalem. Thus says the Lord: For three transgressions of Israel, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment; because they sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals—they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and push the afflicted out of the way.” (Amos 2:4-7).

A contemporary prophet and biblical scholar, Walter Brueggmann, describes the current crisis in American Christianity in unsettlingly similar terms: “The crisis in the U.S. church has almost nothing to do with being liberal or conservative; it has everything to do with giving up on the faith and discipline of our Christian baptism and settling for a common, generic U.S. identity that is part patriotism, part consumerism, part violence, and part affluence.” It’s the same message we get when Jesus warns us in the Sermon on the Mount, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven.” (Matt. 6:19). From Moses and the prophets to Jesus, the word of God is constant and true, and we still don’t have ears to hear.

That’s why we need Lent every year (or more often). It’s time to ask for God’s compassion on our misplaced principles and values, on our false gods of comfort and prosperity and selfish pride. As individuals, as a church and as a nation Lent is examination time. What do we need to beg God to forgive us for? Where in our lives do we need God’s compassion? And the Psalmist reminds us loud and clear that there is nothing that will truly satisfy our hunger but God’s steadfast love. Even when we lose everything we treasure and value–land, temple, monarchy or whatever our personal versions of those things are, God’s love is constant and eternal. And because it is, even in the exile of fear, loneliness, failing health, economic or political chaos “we may rejoice and be glad all our days.” Thanks be to God.